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URI AVNERY

Will Israel appreciate Arafat when he's gone?

THE ANNOUNCEMENTS fill the media again: "Arafat in critical condition!" "Arafat dead." The man who was officially declared by the Israeli government to be "irrelevant" two years ago is headline news all over the world again this week.

I don't know how serious his medical condition is, but I know that if, God forbid, he should pass away, Israelis will learn to appreciate him in his absence.

For 45 years he has lived in the shadow of death. Plots to kill him were hatched continually somewhere or other. In 1982 I stood on a warehouse roof near Beirut harbor observing the PLO fighters, headed by Yasser Arafat, getting on the ships that took them westward. The next day Israeli newspapers announced. "Arafat is politically a dead horse!" "Thank God, we are rid of him once and for all!"

When I returned to Tel Aviv, I remember telling right-wing journalist Tommy Lapid, the present minister of justice: "You have buried him a hundred times, and you are going to bury him a hundred times more."

During the first Camp David conference, Egyptian thinker Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, told me: "If Arafat didn't exist, you would have to invent him. With Arafat around, you have a single address to negotiate with and make peace. If he were not there, the Palestinian people might split into a hundred splinters, and you would have to talk with each of them."

If one does not want peace and prefers a Greater Israel, one does not need Arafat. But if one thinks that peace is essential for Israel to develop and flourish, one needs him very much. He is the only Palestinian leader with the moral authority needed to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but -- even more important -- to carry his people with him. Any peace agreement will demand Palestinian concessions that will tear their hearts, such as giving up the right to unlimited return of the refugees to the territory of Israel. No other Palestinian leader would have the courage to ask his people to do this.

It is difficult to explain Arafat's authority. He has no army and no vast secret police apparatus. His power emanates from the respect his compatriots accord him as the "father of the nation."

Everyone who sees him for the first time is amazed by the difference between the media personality and the man. On TV, he looks fanatical, aggressive. In real life, he is warm, considerate, radiating emotions. He pampers his guests at meals, offering them choice morsels with his fingers. He likes to touch the people he talks with, to take them by the hand, and to offer them small presents.

Arafat is a man of gestures. On the day of his return to Palestine he was about to give a press conference. After the usual embrace, he took my hand and drew me toward the tribune. For an hour he spoke in Arabic to the media, turning to me from time to time for confirmation. In this simple way he was showing the Arab world, I am sitting with the Israelis. I am going to make peace with them.

In the last 30 years I have never been surprised by his actions, not when he went to Oslo or when he took charge of the intifada. If Israeli intelligence has so often been caught unawares, it is only because, as Boutros Boutros-Ghali once said about Israeli Arabists, "They know everything and understand nothing."

Like every leader of a national liberation movement, he had to make the most of the few means at his disposal -- shrewdness, violence, diplomacy, propaganda. He has, of course, made many mistakes, but they pale in comparison to his huge achievement. It was he who created the modern Palestinian national movement when Palestinians had almost vanished from the map, and he has brought them to the threshold of national independence.

All of his achievements were in the face of Israel's colossal material superiority in all fields, the hostility of the Arab governments, and the worldwide sympathy for Israel as the state of Holocaust survivors.

Arafat's demise would not end hopes for peace. Many Palestinian leaders hold similar beliefs to him. However, if he does die, we will have lost an opportunity to make peace with a leader who had the authority and conviction to deliver.

Uri Avnery, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, is a founder of Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc. 

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